Sappho’s “Sweetbitter”: Her Taste, Its Legacy & The Implications

Votive Aphrodite Figurine; discovered in the El-Wad Cave, Mount Carmel: dated to approximately 1st-2nd century CE
(Image & information courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (
www.imj.org.il/en))

In translation, the words that comprise the compound adjective Sappho uses to characterize love as ‘sweetbitter’ (γλυκύπικρον) are commonly reversed: ‘bittersweet.’ That reversal of word order is not wrong (compound adjectives meaning ‘bittersweet’ are found in many other modern European languages), rather the order is quite literally a matter of taste. Though the ancient Greek adjective γλυκύπικρον was likely already in use before Sappho (and remains in use today in modern Greek), hers is the first attested usage of it. As a poet, she would most likely only have used it in the way she did if she in fact tasted ‘sweet’ before ‘bitter.’ That is to say, ‘sweetbitter’ is what linguists refer to as an ‘iconic’ term: its meaning relates in part directly to the very experience to which it refers.

Indeed, it is possible, perhaps probable, that each of the words that comprise ‘sweetbitter’ in Greek is iconic. Each seems to relate to the shape of the mouth associated with the taste to which it refers. The very fact that the Greek word for sweet (γλυκύς (glucus)) survives in English today in such words as ‘glucose’ can be taken as evidence that the association of its meaning with the shape of the mouth is intuitively felt in that way. While the Greek word for bitter (πικρός (pikros)) may also derive from the shape of the mouth when something bitter is tasted, because its primary meaning was ‘sharp,’ it arguably derives more from the association of the sound of ‘p’ and ‘k’ in close proximity to one another (cf. how in English when ‘tip’ is used to refer to the tip of a knife, it essentially ‘sounds’ like the sharpness that it refers to feels and appears).

The Relevance Of This To Human Evolution

That Sappho’s use of ‘sweetbitter’ can be related to iconicity — a well recognized way in which words originate or are used — has important historical implications for understanding the relevance of two key developments vital to human evolution: cooking and the acquisition of language. Research in modern neuroscience has recently demonstrated (very recently: only in the past two decades) that taste is a complex fusion of senses closely related to language skills. Further, women generally have a keener sense of taste than men (a sensitivity that can be assumed to date back to remote antiquity). This appears to corroborate the suggestion by specialists in primate studies and human evolution that the development of cooking, initially primarily the responsibility of women, encouraged the development of language.

This book on the neuroscience of taste was first published on in 2013 by Columbia University Press

Given what is known of these developments, it is intriguing that a fragment of the poetry of Sappho refers to taste. Her poetry is widely believed to be the earliest surviving record not just of poetry, but literature of any type, that can be confidently attributed to a woman. It is all the more intriguing that Sappho was sensitive to the complexity of taste, as her compound adjective demonstrates, and that she relates it metaphorically to love, as complex and important an emotion as a person can have.

Consistent with what is known from other early Greeks it is clear that for her love was an emotion that she thought of in religious terms (as a manifestation of Aphrodite and her ‘child’ Eros). Such thinking remained influential for centuries and can be detected in a Latin poem (Moretum) from about the time of Christ where food, as well as where and how it is prepared (by a fire in an oven), are all referred to by the names of the gods or goddesses they manifested. It is thus justifiable to interpret the votive statue of Aphrodite with a snake on her thigh from roughly the same time period as Moretum (see the picture above) as an expression of ‘sweetbitter’: i.e., Eros as the child of Aphrodite, equated with the bitter aftertaste of love (many if not most conceptual associations and even logical relationships were originally expressed in such a genealogical/mythological way).

It is necessary to be cautious about what to make of this. The development of cooking and language (whether or not they happened at the same time) were much further back in time from when Sappho lived than she is from us today. Such developments predate the rise of any every major civilization and thus events that otherwise preoccupy the attention of historians. Any attempt to understand the relevance of such developments to Sappho (and therefore ultimately to us) poses a considerable challenge. Nevertheless, it is well established from multiple sources that early Greeks, as well as some much later Romans (e.g., Varro and Seneca), thought of their respective languages in agricultural terms. Words were seeds that could be planted in you (or were saplings that could be grafted onto you) from which would grow other thoughts and feelings. Consequently, independent of the modern neuroscience that suggests a connection of the development cooking and thus eating food with the development of language, there is a basis for investigating whether Sappho’s ‘sweetbitter’ contains the intellectual DNA of her taste that in a sense grew on those she influenced in part because they themselves thought of it as a type of plant or food.

To conduct such an investigation is to attempt to acquire the taste for the spirituality of food and language that Sappho had and hence to appreciate the legitimacy of speaking about food as if it is not just god (or goddess) given, but actually divine. To appreciate how such a taste and manner of thinking and speaking originated it is worth emphasizing that the heart, rather than the brain, was originally considered to be where thoughts and emotions arose. Also, originally the association of language with an organic process was encouraged by the reliance on oral transmission, for the memorization and recitation of poetry inherently involves some degree of breathing discipline. Even after the adoption of writing, however, it is apparent that many people did not read silently, but rather sounded out the words they read.

What Little Is Directly Known Of Sappho’s Use Of ‘Sweetbitter’

Knowledge of Sappho’s use of ‘sweetbitter’ comes from two sources. One of the sources merely mentions that she used the word in reference to love. By itself that may not seem very useful, but since the other source is a quotation of two lines of poetry from an otherwise unkown poem without any attribution (simply to illustrate a type of meter), it helps confirm that those two lines are indeed Sappho’s:

Eros, now again, the loosener of limbs, buzzes me:
a sweetbitter ungraspable bug

That is one way of translating what is typically printed as Fragment 130 of Sappho’s poetry, but mindful that poetic words are potentially packed with multiple meanings, it can also be translated:

Eros, now again, shakes up my body,
Pleasing yet annoying, coming onto me like a snake, but never quite able to be held

Though a few other very scrappy fragments attributed to Sappho refer to Eros there is no obvious way in which they relate to these lines. Because Sappho lived around 600 years BCE there is little else to provide context for this that dates from her time. Virtually all paintings or sculptures of Aphrodite (Venus) and/or her child Eros (Cupid) date from at least a century or more later. They may be relevant to understanding Sappho (as I have suggested with respect to the statue of Aphrodite above), but by themselves they offer no basis for relating them to what she might have had in mind.

Sweetbitter: The Sicilian Connection

For more context it is vital to know that though Sappho was born and lived for a time on the island of Lesbos, she did not stay there. She migrated to Sicily, possibly as a refugee from political or military turmoil.

It is not known how Sappho travelled from Lesbos to Sicily; perhaps it was entirely by boat. Illustrated above is a route of over 1000 miles that could be taken today over land and partially over the sea.

Though it is not known how long she lived in Sicily, she was unquestionably influential on its culture (and ultimately that of ancient Roman culture and hence Latin literature). Among other types of evidence that can be cited: a statue of her (now lost) is known to have been commissioned by Sicilians and erected in Syracuse, Sicily to honor her. It is thus quite ironic that what for her were likely unfortunate circumstances that brought her to Sicily nonetheless appear to have greatly contributed to her influence in antiquity and her fame today.

Sweetbitter Medicine: A Legacy Of Sappho?

Important signs of Sappho’s direct or indirect influence on Latin literature are found in Lucretius (last century BCE). It is possible that much of it was indirect via the Greek Sicilian poet Empedocles (who lived about a century after Sappho). His poetry was emulated by Lucretius. Nevertheless, in part because of how Lucretius seems to echo Sappho in certain passages of his poetry, it is possible that his characterization of ‘poetry’ as the sweetness with which the ‘bitterness’ of philosophy can be ‘swallowed’ derives directly from Sappho.

Such an inference can be bolstered by a consideration of other ways in which what little survives of Sappho’s poetry can be related to medical principles and practices (see, for example, my post: Sappho’s Prescription For A Healthy Heart). Sappho herself would have drawn upon multiple cultural sources (it has been suggested she was of Hittite ancestry). Early Greek thought (as evidenced in literature and art) is characterized by any number of polarities such as ‘sweetbitter’ that can also be complementary to one another. Some are quite obviously relevant to cooking, such as ‘dry/moist’ (bread/water (or wine); cf. Empedocles Fragment 63 (quoted with approval by Aristotle)). Nevertheless, Sappho’s unique poetic ability (evidenced, inter alia, by her unprecedented and unparalleled range of poetic meters) would have been a key factor in what may have been her unique role in the transmission of the cultural wisdom from such sources. Her importance in this regard has not been adequately appreciated in part because of assumptions about how the value of one ancient culture or another can be assessed only in relative terms.

It is curious, to say the least, that a contemporary ‘neighbor’ of Empedocles, Alcmaeon, from what is now Crotone on the southern coast of Italy (see the map above), formulated a theory of human health as an ‘equality of rights’ based on the balance of polarities such as taste (bitter/sweet) and temperature (hot/cold). Far too little survives of what Alcmaeon said to be certain of his thinking (what little there is appears to be merely a paraphrase of what he said or wrote), but it seems to betray the recognition that principles of cooking are generalizable not only to medicine and thus the health of the individual, but also to society. From what he says it is arguable that democracy may ultimately derive, in principle, from a recipe that was also a prescription based on a diagnosis of what constitutes the distinction between health and illness. The word attributed to Alcmaeon for ‘equality of rights’ (isonomia) relates to a word Empedocles uses to describe the universality of law (nomimon)(Fragment 125 (Inwood’s numbering)). He apparently believed nomimon constituted a basis for arguing for a type of non-violent vegetarian diet (animal products were not forbidden, provided, they were harvested non-violently (eg, chicken eggs/dairy)).

Both because nomimon is a palindrome (reading/sounding the same in either direction) and because of how Empedocles uses it in the meter of his poetry (line center), it is reasonably clear that it constitutes an iconic term (for a detailed discussion of such poetic iconicity see this short post I wrote: When The Center Of A Verse Represents The Center Of The Universe). That is, like bittersweet, its form (as it sounds as a word by itself and as it sounds in the line of poetry in which it appears) relates directly to its meaning. There is thus implied in its usage by Empedocles, especially if it is legitimate to connect it with the cognate term used by Alcmaeon, an association of poetry with diet and law and medicine. Such an interrelationship is preserved, though it is rarely recognized as such, in the nomenclature for a wide range of disciplines that derives from Greek roots: the ‘-nomy’ of gastronomy, economy, etc.

This hints at there having been far more to Sappho’s usage of the term ‘sweetbitter’ than is apparent from the one fragment where it is found. One reason to focus on her in particular is that implicit in the very centrality of nomimon and associated cosmological images and figures (including the goddess of love) in the poetry of Empedocles (as well as Parmenides) is a sexual egalitarianism that is relatively unique. Until the late 20th century no culture exhibits the sensitivity to the importance of sexual egalitarianism that is found in their poetry or that of Sappho. Such sensitivity therefore cannot be readily be explained from what is otherwise known of Greek philosophy or even other ancient cultures that influenced it. Did Sappho bring to Sicily from Lesbos what was effectively an entire philosophy of life?

Sweetbitter: The Conceptual ‘Seed’ For Beauty & The Beast

To find evidence that she indeed may have imported such a philosophy it is necessary to move forward in time from Lucretius by about two centuries. That was when Apuleius lived (ca 150 CE). He was the author of the only complete novel in Latin that survives (the Metamorphoses, hereafter, ‘Met”), and though his name is not nearly as familiar as that of Lucretius, one story from Met is as well known today as any story from antiquity: Beauty & The Beast is based, albeit very loosely, on the myth Apuleius tells of Psyche and Cupid. To appreciate the significance of Apuleius relative to Sappho and her Sicilian connection it is worthwhile to once again look at a map: he lived in Madaura — what is now M’Daourouch, Algeria, not very far from Sicily:

Though he wrote in Latin, Apuleius claimed to be primarily of Greek descent (not surprisingly he also had African ancestors). He happens to be the only ancient author in Latin or Greek who mentions studying Sappho (he comments on the difficulty of her dialect, which by his time was archaic). Furthermore, though he is commonly characterized as a Platonist, he hardly deserves that given how Plato has come to be interpreted today.

A useful way to appreciate why Apuleius should not be thought of as a Platonist and why that relates to Sappho and her ‘sweetbitter’ is to focus on the etymology of the English word ‘mix.’ By its sound it betrays the fact that it derives as much from Latin as it does Greek: both such ancient languages used essentially the same word (and its cognates) in the same way. Yet, perhaps largely because of the dominance of Plato over many aspects of Western culture, ‘mix’ in English does not retain the meaning it had in Latin and Greek, where it was a standard term (if not the standard term) for referring to sexual intercourse. Related to its sexual meaning was the fact that for early Greeks, cosmology was effectively mixology. By contrast, in a manner analogous to the indifference of the Buddhists of India or the Taoists of China, early Greeks did not worry about the beginning of things — a creation ex nihilo (a suspiciously Platonic idea) — but rather the way things as they are experienced are mixed with each other.

Though in one fragment Sappho does use a cognate of the word ‘mix’ in reference to ambrosia or nectar (the two words were often synonymous with one another), based on what now survives, the mixologist of mixologists of early Greeks was Empedocles. It is notable that Apuleius refers to him as being effectively, for him at least, the poet of poets (he lists him ahead of Plato as ‘owning’ the genre of poetry in the way Plato ‘owned’ the dialogue (Florida 9.27)). This is important to emphasize, for it shows that Apuleius was far more committed to the implications of the mixology of early Greeks than he was to how Plato was and still is understood to have been.

Though one dialogue of Plato (Timaeus) does seem to derive much from Empedocles, Platonic philosophy ultimately came to be defined (as ‘metaphysics’) in a manner that is utterly antithetical to the philosophy of Empedocles. To Empedocles, ‘metaphysics’ did not mean an escape from the physical world, but a transformation of it (i.e., understanding ‘meta’ the way the Latin root ‘trans’ is used in ‘transformation’ — -consistent with how terms such as metamorphosis, metempsychosis are understood in English today (cf. ‘metaphor’)). His heaven was symbolized by a celebratory meal (Fragment 137 (Inwood’s numbering)). It is notable that the Cupid & Psyche episode of Apuleius’s Met concludes with a wedding feast celebrating their marriage followed by a reference to the birth of their child, Voluptas (Pleasure, a ‘female’ noun — the gender is a surprise to the reader as references to Psyche’s pregnancy leave the gender of her baby open to question).

Yet, to Plato (or at least most modern Platonists) to believe in metaphysics is to believe the world must be left behind completely (another meaning of ‘meta’) because it is inherently imperfect. A Platonic heaven cannot legitmately be symbolized at all, although some petulant and puerile Platonists do not let consistency stand in the way of doing so. Instead, as if to compensate for the loss of a legitimate symbol of heaven, those who attempt to graft Platonism onto their religious beliefs in a coherent way indulge in one fantasy or another of the physical world being utterly destroyed. Sadly, occasionally they act out their fantasies.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Plato wanted to have nothing to do with ‘mixing’ and hence food or women (at best modern Platonists (the petulant and puerile ones) only want them virtually). Apuleius was just the opposite. Though Met ends with a possibly autobiographical episode about ‘his’ devotion to the goddess Isis, including his leading an ascetic life and adhering to a vegetarian diet, exactly how he meant for that to be generalized into a philosophy is far from clear. Certainly a strictly ascetic life style is more Platonic than not. Yet, some aspects of Met can be shown to be modelled on a work of fiction. Furthermore, some scholars have even raised questions about whether is survives in a complete form: possibly more episodes followed after the ascetic one.

Apuleius himself is known to have married a widow. His reason for doing so appears to relate to Greek medical thinking about the importance of sexuality (including orgasms) to women’s health. According to most scholars, such thinking betrays the influence of Sappho. That part of the real life of Apuleius resonates with what many take to be the centerpiece of Met: the story of Psyche and Cupid, upon with Beauty & The Beast is based. That story concludes with a wedding feast celebrating the union of the soul and the body, that some have argued is inspired by Plato’s Phaedrus. Yet, what many take to be the essence of that dialogue (the love of one soul for another) appears to have been lifted by Plato himself from a wedding song by Sappho — the same one that influenced Greek medical thinking on the healthiness of orgasms.

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